The scrutiny of efforts to handle and prevent sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace is stronger than ever before. Though there's always been an institutional responsibility to anticipate, address, and respond to issues involving sexual harassment and abuse, we've reached a watershed moment—how organizations respond to allegations and crimes has become vital. The typical hushed approach of the past to handling perpetrators and efforts to keep things quiet in a way that protects organizations is no longer acceptable. Three recent events, detailed below, have helped develop this situation:
Sexual abuse and harassment came to the forefront as an issue when multiple public allegations were made about entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein, whose power and influence once had granted him some measure of immunity to accusation. Widespread outrage was stoked with the disclosure that credible claims about Weinstein long had been ignored. His organization, The Weinstein Company, failed systematically to address issues that were reported. The company ended up going into bankruptcy and led to criminal investigations by the New York Attorney General's office.
A second case that received similar national attention involves the University of Southern California (USC) Medical Center for Students and demonstrates how an organization should not respond to allegations of sexual abuse. George Tyndall, a gynecologist at the institution, was a subject of abuse complaints as far back as the early 2000s.A decade later, an investigation was conducted in response to similar complaints about him. USC determined Tyndall needed to leave, but he was allowed to negotiate a severance package, which included a payment and the signing of a nondisclosure agreement. The Los Angeles Times pursued its own investigation and discovered many additional victims. A series of published stories generated several hundred more complaints and led to the resignation of the president of the university and other senior administrators. In this case, this prominent institution wanted to settle this matter quietly and have the perpetrator go away. Clearly, that was no longer an adequate or sufficient response.
A third situation occurred at Michigan State University, where Larry Nassar was the team doctor for the U.S. gymnastics team, as well as for the university athletic teams. He was accused of improperly touching his patients while caring for them. Nassar eventually pled guilty after being prosecuted; dozens of his victims showed up at the hearing for his sentencing. In response, Michigan State hired an outside firm to investigate and get to the bottom of what happened. When members of the media asked for the report, Michigan State denied their requests. This effort focused more on protecting the organization’s interests and ended up in a lawsuit that resulted in the decision that the president of university needed to step down. Here again an institution was not prepared to respond appropriately to allegations of sexual abuse.
A pattern that can be identified from these events is that these large organizations have handled abuse and harassment cases poorly. They still want to keep things quiet and handle issues themselves without making things public or being accountable to victims. That's all changing quickly with the Me Too movement and the publicity around serious abuse and harassment crimes. Like never before, the push for openness requires organizations to determine the appropriate institutional response when complaints about abuse and harassment are made.
This blog post is the first in a series based on the HealthStream webinar, Fostering a Safe and Secure Workplace, led by James Sheehan. Sheehan is currently Chief of the New York Attorney General's Charities Bureau, which oversees compliance and regulation of the nation's largest charity sector. Prior to this role, he was the New York City Human Resource Administration's first Chief Integrity Officer overseeing audit investigation and data analysis for the nation's largest social services agency. He has additional experience as New York State's first Medicaid inspector general, overseeing the country's first mandatory compliance program. He also was an assistant and associate U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, where he developed a nationally recognized program working with whistleblowers under the False Claims Act.
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